By Mark Scolforo
HARRISBURG, Pa. — New maps of General Assembly districts that reflect the past decade’s population changes in Pennsylvania survived legal challenges Wednesday when the state Supreme Court unanimously cleared the way for candidates to begin circulating petitions to get on the spring primary ballot.
The justices rejected various challenges to the district lines drawn up by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. As a result, the new state House and Senate districts will be in effect for the coming decade.
The justices modified the elections calendar, letting candidates begin to collect signatures starting Friday and lasting 10 days, until March 28. The primary election is May 17.
Mark Nordenberg, the former University of Pittsburgh chancellor who chaired the commission, said that after about 10 months of work the result was a very good pair of maps.
“The process is not perfect, though few things that human beings do are,” said Nordenberg, a Democrat appointed by the state Supreme Court. “I am proud of the result and very gratified that the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed our plan as meeting all of the requirements of the governing law.”
The commission approved the new maps 4-1 more than a month ago, with only House Republican Leader Kerry Benninghoff of Centre County voting against them.
Benninghoff sent a statement expressing his disappointment with the result, and said he was looking at “our remaining legal options.”
Nordenberg said there were no legal channels in Pennsylvania courts to challenge the maps.
“Beyond that, I’m really not sure about the theoretical possibilities,” Nordenberg said.
Benninghoff called the House map a result of “deliberate racial and political gerrymandering” and said it generally diluted the voting power of minority groups — and Latino voters in Allentown in particular.
The commission majority aimed to expand the number of legislative districts in which Black, Latino and Asian voters have an opportunity to select the candidates of their choice.
“It really means that we have swung away from some of the historic practices of either cramming too many members of minority groups into a district, which resulted in there
being too many votes than they needed, or cracking those votes and distributing them so widely that they really could not influence elections,” Nordenberg said. “And this really strikes a better balance.”
Pennsylvania’s white population fell in the decade after the 2010 census by about 540,000, or by 5%, while its Hispanic and multiracial Hispanic population grew by 500,000, or by 50%. The state’s overall population grew by 300,000 to 13 million, or by 2%.
House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) said the new maps reflect “the dramatic shifts in our population” over the last decade. The heavily Republican northern and rural western parts of the state stagnated or lost population, while the more Democratic southeast around Philadelphia gained people.
Benninghoff launched one of the nine appeals the justices denied, along with challenges from some Butler County residents, a couple state lawmakers, math and science professors at Pennsylvania schools, a candidate running for a state House seat, and others.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) described the maps as “fair, reasonable and supported in a bipartisan way.”
“Today’s decision means we can proceed with our election calendar and folks can begin preparation to run for office or learn who their potential representatives will be,” Costa said.
Democrats hope the reshuffled legislative maps will help them make inroads into the Republicans’ firm control over both chambers. The GOP currently has a 113-90 House majority and a 29-21 Senate majority based on maps that have been in place since the 2014 election.
The state’s new map of congressional districts was produced by the state Supreme Court after the Republican legislative majorities and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf failed to reach a deal. The U.S. Supreme Court a week ago turned down a request to overturn them.